I interviewed Norman Wolfe who discussed Shifting From the Machine Paradigm to an Organic View of Organization as a Living Organization.







It’s great to speak with you today, Norman. I’m looking forward to this very interesting topic today of shifting from the machine paradigm to an organic view of an organization as a living organization. Can you start by providing a brief background of yourself?


I’d be happy to. Thank you for having me, Dustin; it’s a real pleasure to be here. I spent 15 years as an executive with Hewlett-Packard. In 1988 I left and started consulting. I’ve been working with large and small startup organizations, established organizations in a variety of industries all with the focus of attempting to help them position themselves so they increase their and create extraordinary results.


What I found during all that time at HP and beyond was, whatever we ended up trying, whatever we did, whatever classes we sent people to or workshops I did, they had a positive impact for the short-term. Then the leaders would go back to their organizations, CEOs would go back to their organizations, employees would go to training and go back to their organizations, and invariably, what we tried to do would stumble or run into roadblocks.


I started to get the impression that the challenges, the issues, were beyond what I would call skillsets or knowledge or information or new techniques or new processes; there was something else going on. That led me to the realization that we’re living in a paradigm. I was introduced to paradigms back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, Joel Barker’s work on paradigms. I began to realize that we all live within a defined worldview or a defined framework, and that framework influences and guides and limits how we see the world and what courses of action we can take. I began to realize that organizations in general live by what I call the machine paradigm. That paradigm actually unconsciously prevents us from achieving what we want.


Can you explain a little bit more about what this machine paradigm to organization is?


The machine paradigm started out of the way scientists view the world, which was summed up by Isaac Newton’s approach to giving a scientific explanation to the universe, which was that it’s a big clock. It’s a big machine and if we take its components apart, we could better understand it and put it together and make the machine do what it wanted to do.


And as we began through the Industrial Revolution and then at the turn of the century, with the growth of the industry factories and so forth, work of Frederick Taylor, everything started to be oriented in the framework. A paradigm was created that said an organization is a machine to be optimized, to be made more efficient, to be streamlined. If you could identify the flow of the work through the system in the most efficient way possible, you would have a very effective organization. In fact, that worked great for the first half of the Industrial Revolution, probably through the mid-’70s and early ’80s. That was a really great model, but it requires certain environmental conditions for it to be successful. One of those environmental conditions is that you can’t have a lot of frequent change because machines are programmed to do what you want them to do, and it’s very difficult to change a machine to be innovative, creative, agile, responsive to constant change.


If you think about how organizations are operated, a group of people—the executive team—decides how the work should get done. We have lots of different methods these days, like lean manufacturing and Six Sigma, which involves all the people, but it’s still trying to figure out how the machine would work, how to design it to go from point A to point B in a nice, efficient, sequenced path that creates the optimum output.


The problem is, every time something hiccups in the environment, we have to change the machine, and machines just can’t respond that fast. I began to look at if the machine paradigm is hindering us—and I can give you lots of examples of how the machine prevents us from getting the very things we need in the 21st century, such as innovation, agility, and engagement. I began to ask the question: If the machine prevents us from getting what we want, what do we replace it with, what else can we use to model the creation of results?


I went to nature. Nature is a perfect example of how to deal with environmental changes and how to respond to them in a way that keeps the objective, the strategy, alive. I began to develop what I call the living-organization model, which is a much more organic model based on not only the way nature works, but the understanding we have about how life works. Life is all energy and we’re just always transforming energy from one form to another. That’s the basis of a living-organization model.


To give you a little bit more about why they machine paradigm is unconsciously undermining everything we want. If you look at one of the key attributes of the optimization of a machine—take things like lean and Six Sigma—what you’re trying to do in those efforts is to eliminate variability and to create a certain degree of predictability and control. Those are two of the fundamental principles of the machine paradigm. You’ll find it throughout all of management theory and leadership training and what we’re taught on how to effectively run an organization. But the very essence of innovation is chaos.


We’re playing around with an unknown domain, and we don’t have an efficient way of understanding it. To be truly innovative, we have to tolerate a certain amount of chaos, diversity, variability. If we’re working with things like Six Sigma to eliminate all variability, unconsciously we’re eliminating the very environment we need for innovation. Same thing with agility. Agility is being prepared for the unexpected, but if you’re always trying to control things and make them predictable and determinable, you’re weeding out the variability to be responsive and agile. Those are just a couple of examples of how the essence of the machine paradigm prevents us from being successful in the 21st century.


Can you describe the shifting from the machine paradigm to an organic view as a living organization? Also, why is this important?


As I said, the living-organization model is predicated on the scientific principle that everything is energy, and energy cannot be created or destroyed. With that, you look at how we transform, how we get an output, how we get the outcomes we want. It follows a model I outline in my book, The Living Organization, where energy comes from the efforts of the people; they’re the only real source of energy. It flows through energy wave guides; in business, we call them business processes, so that’s still important. Directed energy out through the business processes produces an outcome.


At first blush, you’d say that’s no different from what we’re doing today, except we look at it as only a single field of energy today, the activity we do, which is an important field of energy, but it’s only one of three. The other two are the energy of relationship and the energy of context. Any relationship is what happens when people or companies with markets interact with each other. If the energy is coherent and aligned, what we call an engineering in phase, we get an amplification of energy. We get more energy going through the system. If there’s conflict, if there are differences, misalignment, you get energy attenuation—they’re out of phase and you get less energy through the system.


That’s sort of the engineering explanation of it; let’s look at it from a more anecdotal point of view. People who are working well together experience a thing called synergy. They feel energized; they feel like they have more to contribute because they’re bouncing things off of somebody else and there’s alignment and we just get real excited and make things happen a lot easier and a lot faster than if we were in conflict or competing or alone by ourselves. In the business world, this is called creating high-performance teams, and there’s a lot of work around that. All the work is focused on the activity, the process of teamwork; there’s no paying attention to this field of energy of relationship. That’s begun to change over the past couple of decades with things like emotional intelligence, but it’s relatively new and, still, people think of it trapped in the machine paradigm, don’t think of it as a dynamic force that they can actually work with as a part of the equation.


Another phase where relationship energy is important is in the field of customer relations. Customers pay a lot for experiences, or they run away from things because of experience, and that’s, again, relationship energy comes into play there. We treat customers—there’s a lot of work on customer management, customer-relations management, customer-experience management. If you look at what they’re all doing, they’re really trying to optimize the transaction flow of customers through the system, and, of course, when you start to feel like a transaction, your customers will respond accordingly, and there’s no sense of relationship, no sense of belonging, no sense of community, of being together with another being, so you end up losing energy from the interaction.


When there’s a positive experience, you get a real benefit. I’ll give you two examples. Look at the product that Starbucks provides and it’s a coffee. Some people actually dislike it, but that’s neither here or there. A coffee you can get at a lot of places, like service stores. Here in the States, it costs $1.39 at a 7-Eleven convenience store for a large cup of coffee, and you can add steamed milk, because they have these milk-steaming machines and you can add some hot chocolate to it and you can make a mocha and they even have the flavors now you can add to it. For $1.39. I go to Starbucks or any of the other barista coffee places around town, and I’m paying $4.50, $4.75 for the same cup of coffee. For the same product, I’m paying a lot more money. That’s the power of experience.


Apple computers is another great example of that. Apple computer has never been technologically the most advanced computer systems out there, but they’ve been single-mindedly focused on creating the best user experience on the technology that they can create. And not just the experience of the product alone, but the whole ecosystem, like iTunes and the iPhone. Everything became an experience and they changed industries. They changed the music industry and they changed the phone industry; just because they looked at the experience the user’s having with the technology and the whole ecosystem of it. They took relationship to heart.


The third element I talk about is context, and this is really the most important one because it defines what is and isn’t possible. It’s the domain of what we believe and how we believe it. It’s what gets us excited, passionate, and deeply engaged in what we’re doing. Or the opposite. It demotivates us; it just makes us feel like automatons, robots serving in a heartless machine, just picking up a paycheck. By shifting to an organization as the organic flow of energy, which is what nature really is, and beginning to recognize there’s more to life than just the activity, relationships are really important and context is really important. One, you get a lot more energy flowing through your system, which means you’ll get more output for less effort, and that translates into dollars and cents, profit. Increased contribution to customers, better experiences with customers translates into higher margins. More context, more alignment, more consistency, more engagement produces more engaged employees, more passionate employees, produces greater results.


By just focusing on the traditional paradigm, one, we block ourselves from being able to get to what we want, which is innovation, agility, and engagement and * (17:03—unclear). Two, it diminishes our ability to actually increase the revenue and reduce the expenses the way we’d really like to. To make it work, you have to begin to look at the organization differently.


I’ll give you one example of that. I’m working with a client now that’s a health care clinic, and we’re going through traditional strategic planning kind of things, except one of the activities I have them do is look at their organization as a living person, as a single, living entity. Is it male or female? What’s its name? What kind of personality does it have? Is it extroverted, introverted? How mature is it? What’s its age? What’s its relationship, external with customers, with suppliers? What’s its relationship internally?


They came back with some rather interesting answers to that. They said it was female, but they named it Alex because it was kind of not quite androgynous, but it was a very quite aggressive female, if you will—and I don’t mean that in a negative sense—and an outgoing female, but it had a nurturing aspect to it. They said it was about 26 years old; fairly skilled, but lots of little maturity that it needs to round itself out. And kind of introverted in terms of reaching out to the community. by looking at it from this point of view, we get a whole different framework on how to view the challenges.


I could translate that fairly easily into traditional marketing-strategy speak, but it allows the leadership of the organization to look at the organization much more holistically, much more from a developmental point of view. How do you mature the organization? It has all the power and energy of a young 20-something but starts to round it out and mature itself. How does it begin to become more extroverted so it reaches out more to the community? More from a developmental point of view rather than an activity point of view of, “Okay, we’re going to have to this marketing plan, and we’re going to do these internal trainings” and such and such, it just creates a much more robust, holistic point of view.


They’re having some really great success with that approach. They’re getting much more energy, much more excitement through the system. I could probably go on a lot longer about some of the successes, but I just wanted to give you a little sample of where it’s done in practice and some of the results we’ve seen and what we think it’s going to lead to. It also changes what we measure.


I’m going back out there next week to talk about if this is where they want to go in terms of creating an ideal customer experience and this is who they are now, how we get from A to B and how we measure that. How do we measure things like the context of the organization, the culture, the way of being of the organization? How do we measure that? How do we measure the experience customers are having when they walk out? Surveys are just way too analytical and don’t really give you the quality of the experience, so how are we going to measure quality of experience?


These are all parts of the things it takes to transform yourself from a machine paradigm to a much more living, vibrant, engaged way of looking at it. It takes some doing; it takes some courage on the part of leadership because it’s going to be uncomfortable at first. Anytime you learn something that’s different from what you feel you intuitively know, it becomes counter-intuitive and that becomes awkward and somewhat uncomfortable for a period of time. That’s where I helped them through that period and helped them move to a new way of thinking.


Thanks, Norman, for sharing your views today on this very interesting topic.


You’re very welcome, Dustin. It’s really a pleasure to have that opportunity.


Great, thank you.





About Norman Wolfe




Norman Wolfe

Founder, CEO Quantum Leaders, Inc


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